India’s Jio to splash $25bn on achieving nationwide 5G coverage by end of 2023

  • India’s mobile market leader Jio has incredibly ambitious 5G plans
  • It plans to launch in major cities by the end of October and go nationwide by the end of next year
  • Mukesh Ambani, head of Jio’s parent Reliance Industries, says more than US$25bn has been set aside for the 5G rollout
  • Ambani says the home-grown 5G network will be standalone (SA) from the start
  • Ambani aims to reach every part of India with some sort of gigabit broadband connection

If there was any lingering doubt about the ambition of industrial giant Reliance to be at the centre of India’s digital future, it can now be dispelled following the announcement that more than US$25bn will be invested in the rollout of a nationwide 5G standalone (SA) network by the country’s mobile market leader, Reliance Jio, that will be completed by the end of 2023.

The news came as part of an extensive presentation by Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), during the company’s annual general meeting and just weeks after Jio spent $11bn to secure the right to use spectrum in the 700MHz (unique to Jio in India), 800MHz, 1800MHz, 3300MHz and 26GHz bands – see Record $19bn spectrum auction puts India on the 5G map. 

In his wide-ranging speech, Ambani noted that Jio now has more than 421 million 4G connections each, on average, consuming 20 Gbytes of data per month (almost double the data usage figure of a year ago). That trend is important, because it highlights the necessity of having a high-capacity data transport network to deliver and take data traffic from Jio’s cell sites: Ambani noted that Jio’s pan-India fibre transport network runs to 1.1 million kilometres in length and, increasingly, runs all the way to a customer’s premises – JioFiber now has 7 million customers for its fibre broadband service but Ambani wants to see this number grow dramatically to help India become one of the top 10 nations in the world in terms of fibre connectivity (it currently ranks at 138 with only 20 million high-speed fixed broadband connections in a country with a population of 1.3 billion). 

Ambani’s gigabit connectivity vision isn’t restricted to fixed line services, though: He expects Jio’s 5G network to connect more than 100 million homes, tens of millions of small businesses, and tens of thousands of large enterprises with a fixed wireless access (FWA) service called JioAirFiber, and for Jio to “fuel the Fourth Industrial Revolution” by connecting billions of smart IoT (internet of things) modules. 

“We are committed to make India the largest data-powered economy in the world, beating China and the United States,” noted Ambani. Such ambition is helped by the plans of the Indian government, which is encouraging local manufacturing and R&D via its Make in India initiative (among other things), and the fact that India is set to become the most populated country in the world next year, surpassing China.

To achieve its goals, Jio is skipping non-standalone (NSA) 5G technology options and going straight to 5G SA to “deliver new and powerful services such as low latency connectivity, massive machine-to-machine communication, 5G voice, edge computing and network slicing, and metaverse,” and will use carrier aggregation techniques to fully exploit its broad range of 5G-friendly spectrum assets. 

All of this comes at a cost, but Ambani, having seen the fruits of the significant investments pumped into Jio during the past 10 or so years, isn’t afraid to put up the required cash – in this case the 5G plans will cost an estimated 2 lakh crore (2 trillion) Indian rupees (INR) (US$25.2bn) and much of it will stay within India’s borders.

The network’s core platform is being built using an “end-to-end 5G stack which is fully cloud native, software defined, digitally managed, with support for even advanced features like quantum security,” and it has all been developed in India “by our 2,000-plus young Jio engineers, working tirelessly for the past three years”, noted Ambani. (Much of that engineering know-how will have come from Jio-owned telecom software stack developer Radisys.)

“We have already deployed this Made-In-India 5G stack in our network, with sufficient capacity to serve hundreds of millions of users right from day one. Furthermore, Jio 5G is uniquely positioned to offer captive or private 5G solutions,” to be called Jio Private 5G, “for Indian enterprises at owner's economics”, added the chairman. 

So within the next two months, Jio plans to launch 5G services in a number of key urban markets, including Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai, and have the whole country, including 1,000 cities, covered by the end of 2023. “We will use our combined wireless and wireline assets to cover 3.3 million square kilometres, India's total land mass, with fibre-quality broadband, connecting even those parts of the country where satellite technology was the only option. We are able to pursue our disruptive ambitions because of the unique aatma nirbhar [in-house/self-reliant] research and development capabilities we have developed at Jio,” added Ambani.  

So a great deal has been done in-house, but not everything, of course. Jio has long-standing supply relationships with the likes of Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and Cisco, all of which have been boosting their local presence for development and manufacturing, and it looks likely that Jio will adopt a broad mix and match approach to its radio access network selection, which at some point (if maybe not immediately) is likely to include some Open RAN deployments that would likely lean more towards locally-developed software (Radisys is one of the companies that's been looking into RAN software stack development, especially for private network deployments). In addition, the operator has been working with a broad range of partners to develop the platforms, technologies and services it wants to offer over its 5G network. 

Those partners include Meta (FKA Facebook) for “immersive technology” developments: “We believe India's vibrant digital ecosystem will play a critical role in shaping the metaverse and bring new possibilities in education, healthcare and commerce 4.0”, noted Ambani. 

Google is a key partner not only for the joint developments underway on affordable 5G smartphones but because Jio “will leverage the advanced capabilities of Google Cloud to offer Jio's Private 5G stack and other 5G-enabled solutions to both domestic and global users at scale.”

Microsoft is also a key partner for the development of “cloud-enabled business applications and solutions, especially for small and medium businesses,” while Intel is co-developing “technologies used in Jio's cloud-scale datacentres and 5G edge locations, as well as in infrastructure for cutting-edge applications like Artificial Intelligence.” 

And Ambani called out wireless chip giant Qualcomm, an investor in Jio Platforms (the holding company for Reliance’s digital businesses, including the mobile and fibre broadband operations), for special attention, as it is working directly with the Jio R&D team to develop 5G networking functionality for the mmWave and sub-6GHz bands, as well as wireless networking platforms for industrial applications in multiple verticals, not only for Jio to deploy in India but to be exported to international markets. 

Ambani’s vision is undoubtedly ambitious and bold, but given what has happened during the past 10 years it’s hard to imagine the plans won’t become reality. Jio only launched its 4G service in 2016, six years ago, without any customers, competing with a dozen or so established service providers (some national, some regional, some local) and having already sunk billions of dollars into the supporting network and business systems. Now it is the clear mobile market leader (and has been for a few years) and, in effect, faces little tough competition other than from Bharti Airtel: Many of the dozen or so operators that were a fixture of India’s telecom sector in 2016 have gone under. 

Amabani has the capital, the government support and the drive to see this through: It would be tough to bet against Jio.   

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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